Posts about Internet

Network knowledge

I’m a bit late in blogging about and urging you to read David Weinberger’s new book, Too Big to Know. That’s because I couldn’t find my oft-underlined, much-dogeared galley, which I soaked in as soon as I got it.

David is an intellectual hero of mine. He is a coauthor of the seminal work of net culture, The Cluetrain Manifesto. His subsequent books, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined and Everything is Miscellaneous taught me to look at the world differently (yes, it’s partly his fault) and to understand the changing architecture of relationships, information, and now knowledge. He is generous with his thoughts. He challenges me (when I presented Public Parts at Harvard, where David moderated, he pushed me to consider what I was saying about the relationship of ethics and norms and he likely influenced me to consider that as a next project … his fault, again). He is open and curious. He does this with charm and unwarranted but sincere self-deprecation. All that comes across in his books.

Knowledge is an awfully big topic, the biggest. As he started this project, I heard David fret over that. But he succeeded in bringing new perspective even to this. The nut of it:

As knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it. It’s not that the network is becoming a conscious super-brain. Rather, knowledge is becoming inextricable from — literally unthinkable witout — the network that enables it. Our task is to learn how to build smart rooms — that is, how to build networks that make us smarter, especially since, when done badly, networks can make us distressingly stupider.

I interpreted that through one of my favorite (and, sorry, oft-repeated) memes these days: the Gutenberg parenthesis. Among other things, it argues that before Gutenberg, knowledge was about preserving the wisdom of the ancients. In the Gutenberg parenthesis, knowledge sprung from contemporary authors, experts, and institutions. After the parenthesis, as I see Weinberger’s thesis, knowledge becomes province of the network. It isn’t resident only in single facts or artifacts (that is, books) but is a much more complex prism that can be seen from many angles and changes its appearance across them. Knowledge becomes less static, more living. David says it better:

Knowledge now lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication.

Knowledge until now was about creating and controlling scarcity. Up to now, says David, “[w]e’ve managed the fire hose by reducing the flow. We’ve done this through an elaborate system of editorial filters that have prevented most of what’s written from being published . . . Knowledge has been about reducing what we need to know.” But now, of course, information is abundant and only growing — multiplying — as we invent more ways to create and discover and capture and analyze and question. That’s what freaks the old — pardon my choice of word — sphincters of information, the controllers and owners of it. This conflict erupted when Gutenberg invented the printed book and scholars feared we’d end up with too many of them. It emerges again now that Berners-Lee has invented the web.

David grapples with the history of our perception of facts, then wrestles with the idea that we “are losing knowledge’s body: a comprehensible, masterable collection of ideas and works that together reflect the truth about the world. . . . We’ll still have facts. We’ll still have experts. We’ll still have academic journals. We’ll have everything except knowledge as a body. That is, we’ll have everything except what we’ve thought of as knowledge.”

Knowledge, he says, “has been an accident of paper.” We convinced ourselves that a set and knowable worldview was possible because the media into which we put our information created that comforting expectation. Same goes for news: “All the news that’s fit to print” is the greatest conceit imaginable: that everything that matters happens to fit in what we can afford to produce. We know so much better now.

These are profoundly disruptive ideas about ideas. It helps that they come from someone who presents them via doubt rather than dogma. David is, like me, essentially an optimist, but he sees the choices we have and the dangers that present themselves if we chose the wrong paths.

At the end, he examines the characteristics of the net and its knowledge: abundance (“The new abundance makes the old abundance look like scarcity”); links (“Links are subverting not just knowledge as a system of stopping points but also the credentialing mechanism that supported that system”); no need to get permission (“Let anyone publish whatever they want … and the Knowledge Club loses its value”); publicness (somebody ought to write a book about that); and the unresolved nature of questions (“The old enlightenment ideal was far more plausible when what we saw of the nattering world came through filters that hid the vast, disagreeable bulk of disagreement”). “What we have in common,” he concludes, “is not knowledge about which we agree but a shared world about which we will always disagree.”

So the idea that things will settle down and opinions will coalesce around shared facts once we get through this maelstrom of change is a fantasy born of experience but blown apart by the network. So will the future sound like the Fox-News-and-comment-snark present? It needn’t if we adapt our norms to a new reality and if, as David says, we build our networks well. That means building them around new opportunities, for example: “The solution to the information overload problem is to create more information: metadata.” We don’t need more filters, more gatekeepers, more mediators. We need smarter, bigger brains digging through more and better information. Don’t recreate old models. Disrupt them.

David concludes: “We thought that knowledge was scarce, when in fact it was just our shelves that were small. Our new knowledge is not even a set of works. It is an infrastructure of connection.”

Chew on those wires for a while.

Jon Stewart & SOPA (please)

Got to see The Daily Show taping tonight (more on that in a minute) and in the pre-show conversation with Jon Stewart, an audience member said he was sent by The Internet to ask about SOPA. Stewart professed (not feigned, I think) ignorance, asking whether that was net neutrality, and excusing himself, what with their “heads being up their asses” in the election and all. But he said he’d do his homework and he looked at writer Steve Bodow when he said that. Let’s hope he comes out loud.

Confidential to Mr. Stewart: The problem here is that [cough] your industry, entertainment, is trying to give power the power to blacklist and turn off sites if they’re so much as accused of “pirating” (their word, not ours) content. This changes the fundamental architecture of the net, giving *government* the power and means to kill sites for this and then other reasons. That threatens to destroy this, our greatest tool of publicness (book plug). So please, sir we need your force of virtue to beat down this, another evil. On behalf of The Internet, thank you.

Dear Verizon,

I have a simple, helpful suggestion for you:

Put your technician assignments online for customers to see so we can judge when we need to be home and so we don’t get mad at you for having to stay home all day.

Our internet went out after the storms in New Jersey. We were lucky: We lost big trees but they only scraped our house and didn’t take out lines. We lost power and heat but I managed to get the last hotel rooms in the area so we had warm beds. Our power was restored after about 36 hours (many around us in the state still don’t have it) and with power we also got our phone and TV back. But our internet didn’t return. Not so bad. Troubleshooting over the phone with my wife for an hour yielded nothing, so we were told we had to have a visit. But the storm damage was widespread and Verizon was going to take two weeks to come. Internet being lifeblood to me — imagine me Twitterless — I appealed for help to @verizonsupport and they quickly and nicely gave us an appointment after only a few days. That came yesterday.

We were told we were to be the first appointment of the day. So my wife didn’t go out to restock the refrigerator, which was high priority. She waited. She waited 10 hours for the technician to come.

When he came, he said that we weren’t first on his schedule; he had an install, and we know from the effort that went into ours that that takes time. Then his dispatcher inserted another appointment before us. That’s fine, of course. Things are crazy in New Jersey right now. We don’t mind waiting. We just want to know how long to wait.

So here’s my suggestion, Verizon: Go to the Apple store and see the screen that tells customers where they are in line. When you see you’re No. 6, you know you have time to duck out to Starbucks. Apple doesn’t guarantee an exact time — and I know you hate doing that. But Apple gives us enough information so we can know what’s going on and make our own judgments.

Now go to Continental Airlines, look up flight status, and see that they give fliers the complete stand-by list for seats and upgrades. You can see how many seats are open and how many people are ahead of you so you can judge your odds. Again, they give us information. There’s no reason not to. I wrote about this in Public Parts as a simple example of a company being more open. It improves our experience. It saves gate agents from getting the same anxious questions over and over. (I hope this nice practice isn’t lost in Continental’s merger with United.)

So, Verizon, why not open up and simply let customers see a list of how many appointments a technician has and even where they are so we can judge how long it would take to arrive. Give more information when it’s helpful — e.g., that installs take a few hours. When things change, send an update, just as airlines now send SMS or email updates on flight status. You’re a communications company; I’ll bet you can do that well. If we’d had that yesterday, my wife could have spent the morning outside the house (and I wouldn’t feel so guilty for being in New York all day).

When the technician arrived, he was very good and spent time solving our problems with the internet and TVs. He replaced our router.

That leads to another suggestion: Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to send us a router? We’d have had it before the technician came, which means you could have saved the expense of our visit at a really crushed time. Worst case: It wouldn’t have fixed the problem and the appointment would have stood; the only loss would be the shipping cost.

These might seem like minor irritations to customers. But so was Bank of America’s $5 debit card fee. And look what happened to them. In this post, I attributed the bank’s retreat to a young woman’s online petition. But others perhaps rightly credited #occupywallstreet with stirring up productive anger at the banks and winning this small but symbolic and gratifying victory against them at a time of low trust and high contempt for banks in this country.

Friendly advice: You and the other telephone and cable companies could be in a similar boat. No surprise to you that there’s pent-up anger about you. In Public Parts, I tell this story about Frank Eliason, who started Comcast’s @comcastcares — a model for the very helpful @verizonsupport (he later came to New York to work for a bank):

“He was candid about Comcast’s problems, with a rare sense of corporate humor. I watched him at a Salesforce.com event when he came onstage and said, “Customer service . . . . We’re well-known for service, aren’t we . . . . C’mon.” Pause for laugh. “We’re actually working very hard to improve the customers’ service.”

Now see Susan Crawford’s excellent piece for the Harvard Law and Policy Review, out this week, arguing that we are faced with a cable/phone duopoly over our internet access. It is a call to action for regulation of you. It is also, possibly, a focal point for anger about how we customers are imprisoned with our one or two choices.

So beware the seemingly small things — $5 debit cards, 10 hours of thumb-twiddling — can become rallying points for anger and organization against you. We, the community of customers, now have the tools to organize and be heard.

I’m grateful I got my appointment yesterday; thank you @verizonsupport. I’m grateful I got good service from your technician; thank you, Michael. I’m grateful to be using my internet connection at home right now to write this. I’ve also mellowed since Dell Hell. So I want to be helpful.

My helpful suggestion is: open up. If you know information that could be helpful to customers, share it — because now we have the tools that enable you to do that.

P.S. Yesterday was perhaps not the best day to notify us that our rates are going up.

On the Media on the e-G8

Here’s audio of my interview with Brooke Gladstone of On the Media about the e-G8:

Transcript here.

A Hippocratic oath for the internet

First, do no harm.

That is the message I would like to bring to the e-G8 summit on the internet gathered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week in Paris.

I am apprehensive about a meeting of government and industry that begins with the presumption that they wield authority over the internet, the people’s internet. Cory Doctorow decided not to attend, declaring it a “whitewash” for regimes that are at “war with the free, open net.” Perhaps that’s the right decision. Given the chance to go, I decided to witness it up close and say what I have to say so at least I can say I said it. And that is this:

The internet was born open, free, and distributed. As conceived and built, all bits are created equal. It must stay that way. Sarkozy called this meeting to discuss the growth of the internet. It will grow only if it is open and free.

Like John Perry Barlow, I believe that governments have no sovereignty in the net. There is no consent of the governed as there are no governed there. Governments are not the appropriate bodies to protect the internet. When one government assumes that authority, all will. If the U.S., the U.K, the E.U., the U.N., or the G8 impose their wills on the net — no matter how benevolent they claim to be (and none should be trusted) — then China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and no end of tyrants and despots will also claim the right to govern the net. We will end up living under the high water mark of regulation. That means the death of the open net and all it affords society. Instead of reducing the internet through regulation, government should protect the internet.

Companies are also not to be trusted as protectors of the net. Even as I praised Google for at long last deciding to stop doing the bidding of censorious Chinese dictators, it was negotiating a cynical devil’s compact with Verizon to apportion the net into a neutral wired net and a constrained wireless net. No, companies are not to be trusted. The most appalling thing about the Google-Verizon-FCC pact was that the people were not at the table. These companies and agencies presume to cut up our internet and do not even try to give the appearance of including us. That is the dangerous vacuum they try to fill.

Some argue that protecting net neutrality is a form of government regulation. At South by Southwest, Sen. Al Franken convincingly counters that all net neutrality is doing is assuring that the internet is not changed, not perverted from its original state of freedom. He exhorted the crowd of net people, creative people, and entrepreneurs: “It is time for us to use the internet to save the internet.”

The pity is that this meeting on the future of the internet and its growth was called by a head of state and not by us, the people of the net. We have only ourselves to blame. Imagine if this meeting had instead been called by some other body closer to the people with preservation of net freedom as its agenda: an Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Mozilla Foundation, a Berkman Center, SXSW, a university, students in Egypt, an ad hoc disorganization of people online… who?

And what would such an assembly do? I have argued that we need to have a discussion of the principles of the net. I don’t think we will ever get much past discussion, as I do not want to see the imposition of governance on the net from government or corporations or self-appointed bodies, either.

But we must have an open and vigorous discussion of principles so we can discern the shape of our beliefs. In the course of that, I argue at the conclusion of my book Public Parts, “some truths will become self-evident. We will come to examine what matters to us and what we must protect. We will expose different views, priorities, dangers, and needs. Most important, we will have an expression of some principles to point to when powerful institutions try to control our net and diminish our publicness, power, and freedom.”

I welcome the discussion in Paris. I wonder about context set by the convener and the congregants it gathers. Yes, government should be at the table. See German Justice Minister Sabina Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger also calling (auf Deutsch) for a debate over digital values. Yes, companies should be at the table. Like it or not, they build the net. But the table should be ours, not theirs.

There have been many attempts to craft bills of rights for the net, from the Association for Progressive Communications, to a group of Chinese intellectuals, to the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition, to the Brazillian Internet Steering Committee, to the Facebook users who wrote a set of social rights. There is much good thinking there. I offer mine to add to the discussion, broadening it, I hope, to embrace not only the openness of the internet but also the principles of publicness (I go into these in greater depth in my book):

I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble and to act.
IV. Privacy is an ethic of knowing.
V. Publicness is an ethic of sharing.
VI. Our institutions’ information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet must stay open and distributed.

The last one is the internet’s best protection: its own structure. To the leaders gathered in Paris, I say of that architecture: Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.

* * *

I am also set to be on a panel about privacy and data. There, I plan to say that the framing of the discussion is limited and prejudicial. Why is the discussion about privacy? It should also be about protecting publicness.

The internet is our greatest tool of publicness ever. It is everyperson’s Gutenberg press. It enables anyone to speak to everyone. It allows revolutionaries to organize and supports their revolutions. It brings transparency to governments and markets. It helps us find and organize our own publics, across boundaries, apart from mass labels. We should be discussing protecting the internet rather than protecting us from it.

In Der Spiegel (auf Deutsch), Christian Stöcker warns against the demonizing of tools. That is, I fear, the starting point of this discussion, like so many others. If this discussion is about the growth of the internet, then we should guard against restricting it because of prospective fears before we even fully understand it.

At this entire meeting, we must be aware of the internet as a means of disruption. That is why it frightens institutions of legacy power and why they hope to regulate and limit it, using convenient masks — privacy, security, civility…. And that is why I worry when those institutions call a meeting to discuss governing the agent of their own disruption.

* * *

There is no reason for me to be at the E-G8 except that I happen to know people who invited me (after the initial lists were out). No one elected me. I have no standing to represent anyone. But I would like to try to represent some of your views, as best I can. So please enter into the discussion here.

(Full disclosure: As an academic without corporate support, I accepted travel accommodations from Publicis, which is organizing this meeting on behalf of the French government. I did not pay nor am I being paid to attend.)

* * *

: Here is the NY Times’ preview of the event. AFP’s. Reuters‘. WSJ’s.

: Here is a petition urging Sarkozy et al “to publicly commit to citizen-centered policies like expanding internet access for all, combating digital censorship and surveillance, limiting online intermediary liability, and upholding principles of net neutrality.”

* * *

FROM PARIS: I got to ask my question of Sarkozy this morning. He acknowledged in his talk today that government does not own the internet. I said that if a government asserts authority over the internet, any internet can. So I asked him and the G8 to take the Hippocratic pledge: First, do no harm.

He mocked the question, saying that was easy, that he would take the pledge. Ah, but then he defined harm. He asked whether it was harmful for the government to protect intellectual property, security, children… Having no microphone now, I could not say that, indeed, it could be harmful.

I write from the city where Gutenberg’s erstwhile partner and funder, Johann Fust, was nearly arrested because he came here to sell printed Bibles. The booksellers in Paris called the policy on him, declaring there was no way he could have so many Bibles except from the work of black magic. Well, today, the internet is still black magic. We don’t know what it is yet. To define it, restrict it, regulate it, limit it before we even know what it is, there is danger there.

Yes, President Sarkozy, you can do harm.

: Here is video of Sarkozy’s talk and my Q&A (starting at 48:10):

: LATER: Here’s Dave Morgan’s good summary of the event.

In a dog’s net

Cool ideas tucked into part one of this CBC Ideas series about how (we think) dogs think: Dogs, they say, think in maps informed with their smell. They sniff and resniff a location to find out what has been there and they sniff the air to tell the future: to discover what will be here or where they will go next. Thus, they say, dogs have a different sense of “now.” Unlike our eyes, which take in what is visible and apparent at this moment, their noses can sense the past — who and what was here and what’s decaying underneath — and the future of a place — what’s coming, just upwind. Dogs are microprocessors, they say, and their noses feed their data bases.

It strikes me that the net — particularly the mobile net — is building a dog’s map of the world. Through Foursquare, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Maps, Layar, Goggles, and on and on, we can look at a place and see who and what was here before, what happened here, what people think of this place. Every place will tell a story it could not before, without a nose to find the data about it and a data base to store it and a mind to process it.

On the same show, canine Boswell Jon Katz argues that dogs respond to changes in their map: “hmmm, those sheep aren’t usually there and don’t usually do that and so I’d better check it out to (a) fix it or (b) update my map.” Dogs deal in anomalies. So do data-based views of the world: we know what happened in the past and so we know what to expect in the future until we don’t. Exceptions and changes prove rules.

/squirrel

Clinton and the freedom to connect

In her second major speech on internet freedom, I’m delighted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood for the freedom to connect and recognizes the internet as a public space (as I will argue it is in Public Parts). The right to connect is first on my list of principles for our net society. I’m also delighted that she is calling for a discussion about those principles. But I will say that discussion should not come from her or from any government. The internet is not theirs. It is ours. The discussion must come from us, the citizens of the net.

She said:

To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that guide us. What rules exist‚ and should not exist‚ and why; what behaviors should be encouraged and discouraged, and how.

The goal is not to tell people how to use the Internet, any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public space, whether it is Tahrir Square or Times Square. The value of these spaces derives from the variety of activities people can pursue in them, from holding a rally to selling their wares to having a private conversation. These spaces provide an open platform‚ and so does the internet. It does not serve any particular agenda, and it never should. But if people around the world are going to come together every day online and have a safe and productive experience, we need a shared vision to guide us.

One year ago, I offered a starting point for that vision, by calling for a global commitment to Internet freedom to protect human rights online as we do offline. The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs‚ these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog.

The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace; in our time, people are as likely to come together to pursue common interests online as in a church or union hall. Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I have called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same.

Because we want people to have the chance to exercise this freedom, we also support expanding the number of people who have access to the Internet.

Amen to all that. I’m disappointed that she used this speech to once more attack Wikileaks (even as she praised other nations’ citizens’ efforts to use the net to bring transparency to their governments) and that the Administration has not taken the opportunity of Wikileaks to examine its own level of classification and opacity. They could still disapprove of Wikileaks while also learning a lesson about being more open. By not doing that, some of the high-minded words in a speech such as this come off as at least inconsistent if not hypocritical.

Support for the disconnected of Egypt

Governments are the single point of failure for the internet and thus for the public’s tool of empowerment. We are seeing that in Egypt today as the government ordered telcos to shut down the internet as a whole in the country. We have seen that in the past when Libya shut down .ly domains it did not like. Our internet is too fragile.

I took some solace from Clay Shirky reminded me today that by the time governments shut down the internet or its services, it has so far been too late: the protestors are organized. I tweeted that and someone responded that the lesson for tyrants is: take care of the internet first, the protestors second.

The chicken-egg debate about the credit the tools of the internet and publicness deserve in Iran and Tunisia and now Egypt is rather pointless, even offensive. These tools were stolen from the public by a government trying to forbid them because they are a means of shifting power. They do not belong to government. They belong to the public, who are using them to claim their rights as the public.

I am in Davos where, in 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote his Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace. It becomes only more relevant:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

At a session here at Davos on governance in a new-media world (their words) we discussed the inevitability of greater transparency through these new tools and the need for principles to govern those who would govern it. (I’ll write more about that later.) This is why I am working on my own suggestions for such a set. (Here is the most recent version of a constantly changing list; I no longer call it a Bill of Rights but instead a set of principles and, again, I ask for your help in framing the discussion).

The first and most fundamental principle is that we have a right to connect. Egypt violated that principle — that human right — today.

We, the people of the internet, the citizens of this eighth continent (as the CTO of the U.S. VA calls our newly discovered world) must stand in support of the disconnected of Egypt. I don’t have the eloquence, passion, and credentials of Barlow, so I will not pretend to be able to respond to the call made by @jwildeboer proposed on Twitter just now: “Will Netizens at #WEF publish support statement for #Egypt? Or are they too busy talking to Tycoons? cc @JeffJarvis”

Yes, such a statement of support should come from each of us, particularly those of us here in Davos. This is mine. Yours?